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Consumed With Hate: Man of Steel

🦸‍♂️ A Cloudy Day in Metropolis...

The Crime: Man of Steel
The Guilty Party: Zack Snyder
Overview: Zack Snyder's deconstruction falls flat because he doesn't like superheroes and is real bad at juggling theme, setting the entire DCEU down a path of idiocy.

Why I Hate It...

Way back in March, I did a write-up of Sucker Punch, a movie that doesn't work, but that I can't help but admire for its ambition and bravado. And I posited that the main reason it doesn't work is that it's a theme-rich film helmed by a director who's really bad at managing theme and integrating it with story and character arc. And I stand by that. Snyder is good at many things--he's an excellent visual stylist and second only to George Miller in terms of being able to shoot chaotic action sequences and keep them coherent. But when it comes to thematic storytelling, he's not good. For most of his filmography it hasn't mattered all that much. Nobody saw 300 because they were interested in what it has to say about xenophobia and proto-nationalism (nothing good, as it turns out, but that's neither here nor there). They went to 300 to see a string of action set-pieces with over-the-top gore and chiseled men in speedos.

Side-note: I'm suddenly curious how many fans of this movie--a movie that was made by men, for men, about men--think those abs on display are for the ladies in the audience. We're all aware that the male gaze also fetishizes the male physique, right? We all understand that. Right? Anywho...

It's interesting to me that Snyder even manages to flub the theme in movies that were drawn from theme-heavy source material. The original Dawn of the Dead was very nakedly a criticism of consumerism, but under Snyder's direction it's just another zombie apocalypse flick. Watchmen is an argument that vigilante violence is terrifying, actually, but Snyder turns it into a flagrant glorification of gore and grimness, missing the theme entirely despite basically using the graphic novel as storyboards. And then we have Man of Steel. It's a go-to of mine for bad theming, which I freely admit to stealing from Dan Olson's Folding Ideas YouTube channel. It's a movie that has a lot on its mind, but doesn't adequately service any of those ideas or link them to the story, and it doesn't seem to have a central message that it's delivering.

In fact, a few weeks ago I gave a talk on how to be deliberate with theme in your writing, and I did, in fact, use Man of Steel as an example of muddled theming. Specifically, there's the theme that's hit on the most in the text of the film: Will Clark become a hero? And it's a question that's answered in the first ten minutes when we see Clark being a hero. And yes, I realize that we're watching a Superman movie, and we all know what side of the argument he's going to land on, but that's beside the point. People go see James Bond movies knowing that he's going to save the day because the resolution isn't the interesting thing, it's the struggle to achieve it. And there's no sense of struggle here, at all. There are no meaningful stakes and therefore no reason for the audience to be invested in that theme.

So right from the start, the film just has all of its narrative oxygen sucked away. And yet, we get all these flashbacks of Clark not knowing if he should save people and getting horrible advice from his parents. Jonathan Kent's death at the hands of a conveniently placed tornado--a death that Clark could have prevented but didn't in order to protect his own identity--is made into this big moment, but it's never tied to anything. How does Clark react to it? Does he regret it? Did he learn anything from it? The movie never says. We get this big moment of Superman revealing and surrendering himself to the military. And it feels like it's supposed to be weighty, but it's not tied to anything at all. Does he identify with soldiers? Why them, and what does it have to do with Clark's central struggle? What is this supposed to mean?

But then there's a second theme that the movie builds its climax around and just doesn't bother to set up: Should Superman kill in order to save lives? In the finale, Superman is placed in a very contrived situation where he has to decide between killing General Zod or allowing Zod to kill a family of four, and he chooses to kill Zod. Because if there's one thing comic fans are thirsting for, it's a literalization of the Trolley Problem in their superhero films. On the one hand, this rings hollow to anyone who's seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a film that is built thematically around the inevitability of a no-win situation. Kirk struggles through that entire film to accept that a sacrifice is a noble act rather than a sign of weakness. But in Man of Steel, we're presented with the answer to a question that was never asked. Superman snaps Zod's neck and then lets out a primal howl of anguish and it's built up like this big moment, and yet it comes out of nowhere. At no point has the movie established that Superman doesn't want to kill. In fact, we've seen him kill his own father through non-action and he didn't seem all that torn up about it!

So yeah, thematically, it's a mess. Two distinct, unrelated themes and a bunch of connective tissue that goes nowhere.

Except... Here's here I admit that I'm being a little disingenuous. Because I actually think that Snyder does have a central unifying theme with this movie, he just does a bad job of linking it all together. Snyder's response to criticism of his Superman movies has been to say that some people don't like seeing their heroes deconstructed. Now, in our reality, it's more of a case where people don't like seeing their heroes in boring and narratively incoherent movies. But it's telling that Snyder regards his films as deconstructions, right? I mean... what is he deconstructing? Well, I have a guess. My hypothesis is that the two themes I listed above are actually intended to be the same theme. "Will Clark become a hero?" and "Should Superman kill?" are, in fact, the same question. Because for Zack Snyder, saving people isn't enough. Real heroes do murder.

Through that lens, a lot of these disparate pieces come together. Why do we see Clark saving people early on if the question of heroism is going to linger over the entire film? Because from the film's perspective saving people is only the first step on the path of heroism. Why does Superman present himself--supplicate himself, even--to the US military? Because they're real heroes. They save by killing. Why does Jonathan Kent's weirdly contrived death play out the way it does? Because it's bridging a gap from "not saving people is okay if you're doing it to protect yourself"--something that the film treats as axiomatic--to "killing people is okay if you're doing it to protect others." Jonathan all but forbids Clark from saving him, so Clark watches him die. This was, by the film's logic, an act of instruction, giving Clark a way to practice killing without actually doing it. As I mentioned above, saving Jonathan would have been trivial, but the movie doesn't treat it as a regret, because it's not meant to be a regrettable action, just a necessary step on the path to true heroism, heroism through killing. Hell, it even resonates with the title. Why is this movie called Man of Steel instead of any of Superman's other monikers? Because "steel" is another word for weaponry.

So, does unmasking this make it better? It worked for Sucker Punch. Knowing the theme beforehand actually makes that movie kind of good. Does that also work for Man of Steel? Does knowing the theme that Snyder mishandles improve the viewing experience? Well... I mean... yes and no? Yes, it's more coherent. I bet if I were to watch it again, I'd find even more details to support that. General Zod is a perfect villain for that kind of hero journey, and the dream sequence with Superman drowning in a sea of skulls makes more sense. It lines up with Superman's arc--such as it is--in Batman v. Superman. But on the other hand, no, it kind of makes the movie worse because oh my god that's a terrible theme what the hell is the matter with you!?!

In a way, Man of Steel is a retread of Superman II from 1980, and in that movie as well General Zod points out that Superman's weakness is his love of the humans. But in that film, it's a weakness to be endured, whereas here it's a weakness to be stomped out. And it's easy to pin this on Snyder's weird taste in comics--seriously, there's nothing wrong with loving Heavy Metal or Watchmen, even if you don't fully understand Watchmen--because he's definitely the wrong choice for Superman. This is DC's flagship hero and one that is notable for his optimism and bright color palette! But the other thing to remember is that this film was meant as a spiritual successor to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which was a gritty and naturalistic take on Batman. The story of Man of Steel was pitched by Nolan. And if you think about it, this theme of heroism-means-being-willing-to-kill is one that underpins The Dark Knight as well. It's overshadowed by Harvey Dent's statement "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain," something that Batman plays out metaphorically in the finale, making him "the Dark Knight." The fact that Batman killing Harvey Dent does, in fact, make him into a literal villain in the logic of the film... that's is easy to miss. And honestly, the film is stronger for that accidental obfuscation.

Getting back to Man of Steel, we have two things going on. On the one hand, it's thematically incoherent. Even if you accept my thesis here, you have to admit that it's clumsily presented and this ultimately makes for a film that is well-shot, well-acted, well-paced, and brimming with cool action sequences, but also lifeless and boring because it has no narrative momentum. On the other hand, if you do manage to follow the breadcrumb trail, you arrive at a message that's a horrible fit for Superman. Superman is defined by two things: he can do anything and he is incorruptibly good. Superman the anti-hero is a bad take. That's just science. The fact that it's also unintelligible kind of covers up for it, but it doesn't matter because the director thinks he nailed it and as far as he's concerned the real problem is all these normies who can't handle how edgy he is.

And, of course, behind all of this is a studio that is drowning in skulls, a studio that consistently mismanages its IP, a studio that looked at Watchmen and thought "this is the guy to set the tone for our bright, colorful, family-friendly stable of characters." And a studio that's been getting its ass kicked by Marvel at the box office and is desperate to prove itself. But that's a story for next week.

Next week, we continue the path of the DCEU's unraveling with the horrific travesty that is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.